The solid wastes (feces) of cats may contain a parasite called toxoplasma gondii that can cause toxoplasmosis, a rare but serious blood infection. Toxoplasmosis can also be contracted by eating infected, undercooked meat or by eating contaminated fruit or vegetables. If you have had cats for some time, you may have already been exposed to toxoplasmosis and developed immunity to it.
What are the symptoms of toxoplasmosis?
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Sometimes there are no symptoms at all
How common is toxoplasmosis?
Toxoplasmosis is most common in areas with warm, moist climates. More then 50% of the population in Central and Southern Europe, Africa, South America and Asia are infected with toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis is common in France possibly due to the preference of minimally cooked and raw meat.
In the United States, 1 out of 1,000-8,000 babies are born with toxoplasmosis. Veterinary clinics, animal shelters, and meat packing operations are environments conducive to transmission.
How will toxoplasmosis affect my pregnancy?
For women who are not immune to toxoplasmosis, exposure to this parasite just prior to or during pregnancy may cause the fetus to be infected. According to the Organization of Teratology Information Services (OTIS),when the mother gets infected between weeks 10-24, the risk for severe problems in the newborn is about 5-6%. Effects on the baby include: premature birth, low birth weight, fever, jaundice, abnormalities of the retina, mental retardation, abnormal head size, convulsions, and brain calcification.
During the 3rd trimester, a fetus has an increased risk of becoming infected, but the risk of damage to the fetus is decreased since most of the important development has already occurred.
How can I prevent toxoplasmosis?
- Avoid exposures to cat feces; get someone else to change the kitty litter
- Keep cats off counters
- Do not give your cat raw meat
- Wash your hands thoroughly after contact with your cat or contact with raw meat
- Keep counters clean and cook meat thoroughly
- When eating out, order meat well done
- Good hygienic measures prevent transmission
How is toxoplasmosis diagnosed?
Most healthcare providers will routinely screen for toxoplasmosis immunity before pregnancy or during the first prenatal visit. A blood test can determine if you have been exposed. If toxoplasmosis is present during pregnancy, treatment with antibiotics will be given for several months to reduce the risk of severe damage to the baby. Cordocentesis is a test that can determine whether an infection has occurred during pregnancy.